TThe Indian military has a long history of being not only apolitical but also religiously neutral. For ages, soldiers from all communities and religions have been part of the army. Although the British established regiments on caste and regional lines, on the whole the character of the army remained largely irreligious. The British got a taste for mixing up religions when the âpureâ Brahmin units became renegades and started the mutiny of 1857. The British reaction was swift and very harsh, as they not only dissolved a large number of them. Brahmin units, but also inflicted extreme punishments – ordering captured soldiers to be shot after alleged court martial proceedings.
The British analyzed the situation and immediately transformed the regimental system of the army. All native infantry regiments based on the religious denomination have been dissolved and recorded in history without a trace.
The British transformed the regimental system to instill discipline in the forces. Since independence, the army staff has introduced various measures, large and small, to successfully ensure that forces are governed by their own code. However, recent developments show a worrying trend.
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Impact of social media on strengths
The negative impact of social media has spread over the past five years. The danger of false propaganda and half-truths that spread almost daily on social media has become a reality. Few will admit it, but this trend permeates the base of this most secular organization in India. WhatsApp has been used to circulate a huge amount of right-wing propaganda among the forces. Most of this literature, based on baked lies, is likely to have a negative impact on the performance of caste / region based units, if there is a crisis like the Punjab that has seen mutinies in the army.
The military, for its part, appears to be aware of this trend and has given very clear orders on the use of social media by personnel on duty. However, he is a very difficult genius to put back into the bottle. What is also worrying are the activities and ideology of the political leaders of the time. This has a direct impact on the leadership of the army. In recent years, some actions of the armed forces have been overtly politicized by the ruling power. The surgical strike, the Balakot strike and the Galwan clashes were repeatedly used as electoral rhetoric. This is a dangerous trend never seen before. No political party or leader has cashed the most famous victory against Pakistan in 1971. Other notable achievements, such as Kargil, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Siachen operations, Pokaran nuclear explosions, etc. , were left to the military to celebrate.
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Army rituals are now public relations operations
The most striking recent trend is that many rituals that were at best a unit level activity in the past have now been transformed into public relations exercises. Recently, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh played shastra puja during the Dussehra festival by visiting army formations in the northeast. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Ladakh to “inspire and motivate” the troops asked the soldiers to organize a Indus river puja. The Minister of Defense during his two-day visit to Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir decided to visit Amarnath Cave with the entire military hierarchy standing behind him with folded hands. Rajnath, during his visit to France for the delivery of the Rafale, was seen performing rituals which, at best, are, again, a unit-level activity, and not for the consumption of the General public.
These symbolic gestures and activities have never been seen or publicized in the secular Indian army. The body language of the generals standing to oversee these ceremonies also portrays a sad image. This is the new normal and it seems worrying in the long run for an army passionate about its secular and pluralist culture and ethics. Is the army right? The social structure of our nation is fragile with deep cracks in our political system, the nation will not be able to afford a polarized army.
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The regimental system survived
After independence, the army retained the old regimental system left by the British. The first commander-in-chief, General Cariappa, however, felt the need to change the caste system of the units, and so one of his first initiatives was to raise an All India All Class infantry regiment in the form of the Guards Brigade. This experience was a huge success as the new regiment performed very well in all operations. However, this was not pursued as the future leadership did not feel the need to tinker with the fashionable regimental system. This is no surprise, because by nature, armies around the world are status-quist.
Most of the combat arms like infantry, armored corps, and artillery have remained a mixture of pure-class or mixed-class composition units. Some regiments, however, have retained their pure character: the Sikh, Sikh Li, Jat, Garhwal, Gorkhas and Rajput regiments. Few have a mixed class composition like the Grenadiers, Mahar, Madras, Punjab, Rajputana Rifles and The Guards.
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The 1984 Mutiny and the Mature Management of the Government
The first shock of the negative fallout from the pure regiments was felt in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar in the Punjab in June 1984. A significant portion of the Sikh, Punjab and artillery units carried out a mutiny unprecedented in modern times. The Sikh regimental center in Ramgarh also erupted in religious frenzy, with recruits and their instructors going wild. The commander of the center, Brigadier RS ââPuri was shot dead by the soldiers. It was a sad chapter for the army as a whole. More than 2,800 soldiers have been arrested on charges of mutiny and charges, including murder and assault. The units that deserted were 3 Sikhs, 8 Sikhs, 9 Sikhs, 18 Sikhs, 14 Punjab, 166 Mountain Regiment, 171 Field Regiment and 196 Field Regiment.
The initial reaction of the army authorities was to limit this backlash and not allow it to spread through force. Thus, the army acted very quickly and, by direct and indirect methods, was able to ensure that there were no more incidents after the first reactions occurred in the “heat of the moment”. Initially, this sporadic wave of reaction on religious lines caused tremors within the military and the dismantling of a few units was also considered. However, later, recognizing that desertions were mainly a foolish choice, the government eased the harsh measures planned, and even announced rehabilitation measures.
The situation was managed with great maturity by the leaders of the time. The army had burned its fingers and there was consensus on reorganizing the force to make it more cosmopolitan. Almost all pure class infantry regiments had to be mixed with troops from other regiments. However, even then, only rifle companies (about 130 soldiers) were assigned to the different regiments. No one ever thought of mixing troops at the section level without any caste or region affiliation. This mixed experience lasted a few years and with no long-term vision, the army returned to normal.
The false sense of regimenting, which is an emotional connection at best, has prevailed and no long-term view has been adopted by management. In such cases, the political leadership rarely gives firm directives and the bureaucracy leaves the military to manage its internal affairs. This has been the attitude of the Defense Ministry since independence – it avoids giving guidelines on the age-old ethics of the military, lest it be accused of not knowing how the force works.
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A hard lesson
The army had learned its lessons in a quiet manner, and the officer corps was specially trained not to be too religiously inclined. A control over the religion of officers before their initial commission to pure class units has been quietly instituted by the military secretary’s branch. The officers are told: “You have no religion, you adopt the religion of the troops you command”. So, we had a generation of officers who began to practice the âreligion of the troopsâ and even their families relied on faith.
This legacy lasted until the internet and smartphones reached almost every home in the country. The Army could not be isolated from this technological tool. In recent years, religious identities have hardened all over the world.
Major-General (ret’d) Yash Mor @ YashMor5 has served in South Kashmir and Punjab in counterterrorism operations. He writes on issues of strategy and leadership. Opinions are personal.
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